A gust of wind blew down an old dirt road. Dust billowed and rose like a dark cloud, obscuring the town ahead for a few brief seconds. Konta Farshore shielded his eyes with a pale hand. Each fleck of grit that hit him stung his near translucent skin. He didn’t breath. Any irritation on his lungs would have caused hours of painful coughing.
The wind faded. Konta waited a few moments then lowered his hand and resumed his breathing. If he’d known the weather would pick up like this he would have stayed at home. He shifted position on his seat. Bruises were already forming where the jostling of the cart had knocked him against the wood.
He yawned then set his eyes on the sparkling blue horizon. The Eastern Ocean extended out into infinity, consuming the world beyond the cluster of brightly coloured buildings that formed the port town of Blencca. It was a large settlement that was fuelled on an economy of fish and little else. Despite this, it was the centrepoint of the area and drew in the residents from the hundreds of farms that dotted the plains around it.
Konta and his family were one such group. They had just had the first harvest of the year and were making the trip down to the merchant quarter to sell that which they didn’t need. Tannar Farshore, Konta’s father, sat beside him with reins in hand, urging the old horse onwards at a gentle pace. Two of Konta’s brothers, Jakks and Samil, walked either side of the cart. Jakks walked hand in hand with a young woman bearing the unmistakable bulge of heavy pregnancy.
Konta was the youngest of seven children. He had four brothers and two sisters, all of who might as well have been another race entirely. Looking down at his eldest brother he couldn’t see any similarity that was reflected in himself. Jakks, and all of the men in the family, were tall with broad shoulders and tanned skin. Coarse hands and muscular arms were the hallmarks of all the local farm workers. He was so strong and confident.
A smile tugged at his lips. He couldn’t help but feel happy seeing his brother laugh and smile with his wife. Jakks had been as excitable as a child since Dalaina had told him she was expecting a child. Konta lived almost vicariously through his family. He couldn’t go out and do all of these great things himself but the positive emotions from those around him buoyed him up and kept him afloat in the sea of impotence that was his life.
He had been born on a cursed night under a crimson moon. It had been a difficult birth and his mother had died while in labour. Konta had survived but was a sickly child, his body left frail and near useless. He was bone-thin with pale, waxy skin, white hair, and damaged organs. He bruised easily, his brittle bones broke under the slightest strain and he found himself struggling for breath after the slightest of activity. He was, for all intents and purposes, useless.
“You reckon that trouble out west will get us a better deal?” asked the other brother, Samil. He was Konta’s second eldest brother and was the only member of the family other than Konta to not have brown hair. He wore his blond hair long in a loose ponytail that he joked made him irresistible to the women.
Their father shrugged, chewing thoughtfully on the tip of his pipe. “Probably. Don’t know how bad it’s got but trouble o’ any size tends to turn a good profit. So long as the trouble keeps a safe distance away anyway.”
“Plenty of soldiers passing by of late. Callab said they were recruiting down by the market last week. You think they’ll make the round through the farms?”
Tannar grunted. “Doubt it. Lords love sendin’ lads to fight and die for their political games but most have the sense to know where their food comes from. Why, you fancy swappin’ the hoe for a sword?”
“Me? No, sir. I like my hide not being full of holes. I’m perfectly content to feed animals and pick crops,” Samil laughed. He always carried himself with a laidback attitude that stood in contrast to his hard working nature.
Tannar blew out a line of smoke, careful to direct it away from Konta, then turned to him. “What about you? I’ve seen you reading about war. Would you like to be a soldier?”
Konta shifted his weight awkwardly. “I couldn’t lift a sword, let alone swing it.”
“I didn’t ask if you could be a soldier, just if you wanted to be one. I want to retire beside a fishin’ lake with a big chest of coins so I can live comfortably, doesn’t mean it’s any more realistic than you being a hero of war.”
Konta thought about this. He had been reading about war. Battles seemed an important part of how the world worked so he had wanted to understand them. If he was a normal man would he want to be part of that history?
“Maybe. All the books say battles built the world we know today. Blencca was founded after a large naval battle. All the early buildings were built from remains of the destroyed ships. Kings rise and fall while cities are founded and destroyed. Imagine seeing that first hand.”
“You think with your head too much, boy,” Tannar told him good-naturedly. “You’re looking at war like a general, not a soldier. You see the men like pieces of your little contraptions. They are a means to an end. You are forgetting that each man in the lines of thousands that you’re imagining is just a regular fellow like you or I. Each has a life they left behind to be there. Loved ones to return to, ambitions to achieve. Then they go to war and cut each other down for no other reason than they are told to. They don’t see the history or strategy down there in the fields. All they see is the blood.”
“Is that something Grandpa told you?” Samil asked.
Tannar nodded. “He fought when I was only little. It was a small war but it left its toll. My older brother died and my pa was left mentally scarred by it. I don’t think I ever saw him smile.” He paused then shook himself, offering his sons a soft smile of his own. “But this was a long time ago. For now our biggest worry should be getting a good price for the crop and seeing that you find yourself a wife, eh Sam?”
“Hey, let’s not get hasty,” Samil said quickly. “Jakks and Dalaina only got married last year and Lanber is courting. Wouldn’t want too many in too short a time. Cheapens the experience. Nobody wants that.”
“I don’t know,” Konta said with a sly smirk. “Daisy Kesslin seems pretty intent on fitting another in as soon as she can. She’s got the subtlety of a starved dog eating noodles whenever she looks at you.”
“Who’s side are you on? You’re supposed to have my back. Just remember, little brother, if I get bound then you don’t get my charming company any more. There’s only so much of me to go around.”
Their conversation came to an end as the cart rattled past the checkpoint into the town. Tannar nodded amicably to the guard who returned the gesture. Blencca opened up before them like a wildflower garden. A warren of tight streets wound hectically through islands of brightly painted wooden houses. Some buildings were squat while others rose three stories tall, all of them intermingled without any sense of order.
Despite the brightness, everything in sight had a ramshackle appearance. Mud covered the paths and layers of dried dirt warred with bleaching from the sun so that most surfaces had a gradient of colour from top to bottom.
Konta carefully slipped down from the cart here so Dalaina could take his place. He could feel the rough coldness of the ground through his shoes. Smells assaulted his nose. Everything was underpinned by the scent of damp and fish, while sharper smells like fresh paint or spices from the market cut through in spikes.
Being here always made him slightly nervous. There was too much for his senses to keep track of. One trip on uneven ground or a bump from an unaware passerby in a rush could leave him with seriously broken bones.
Most of the locals knew him by sight though. That was an advantage of white hair. They kept their distance from him. He wished he could say it was through concern for his health but many saw him as cursed. Someone with his appearance and ailments must have displeased the gods. That was a good enough reason for many people to be weary of his company.
He plodded alongside the cart with Samil walking protectively beside him. The confusion of colours only grew worse the further into Blencca they moved. Its citizens were not rich but their cheap woollen clothes were dyed in a dazzling rainbow of colours, each person seemingly trying to outdo the others in how much they stood out.
Even the guards managed a garish palette without taking away from their laidback intimidation. They were dotted around the streets, easily picked out by their bright yellow tunics and metal chestplates of fishlike scales that swam with colours when reflecting the sun. Their spears and finned helmets gave them an almost amphibian quality.
They came to a stop outside the only stone building in sight. It was impressive by the standards of its surroundings. A clear ring of open space circled the clean grey walls. Statues and carvings adorned each surface leading to a domed roof above.
Konta peeled away from the rest of his family and took the first step up towards the entrance. He turned and offered them a slight wave. Tannar nodded back to him then motioned for the horse to continue forward. After a few seconds they disappeared into the tangled streets. Konta looked down at his own feet and carefully took each step one at a time until he stood beside the giant wooden doors.
A guard stood beside the door. He had an oversized moustache that followed the lines of his helmet, framing his mouth. He smiled and opened the door.
“Not seen you for a while, young Konta. Finally run out of books to read?” the guard said. Each word came out as a wheeze.
“Good morning, Geoffrey. It’s good to see you. Are you well?”
Geoffrey snorted. “I’m healthy enough to just about breathe and stand at the same time. Old lungs aren’t like they used to be. Can’t complain though. At least I got a few good years out of them. You?”
“I managed to not get sick this winter,” Konta said enthusiastically. His tone dropped. “Though I didn’t leave the farm all season. I’d have almost taken been sick just for a breath of fresh air.”
“Good, good. I remember when you were born. Folk said you wouldn’t last the year yet here you are almost fully grown. Bah! Don’t mind the ramblings of an old man. Come on in.”
Konta stepped into a large room with a row of desks facing him. Sat at each were men and women with huge ledgers and piles of carefully arranged papers. They looked up as he entered for the briefest of moments then returned to their work.
It was a building that most of the town hated. While the nobles had their own walled villas outside the town, they still needed a presence within to see to the day-to-day management of the place. The town hall was a middle ground between commoner and the wealthy where the citizens could raise complaints and be present for official meetings without them defiling the corridors of worth.
To Konta though, it was a place of love. Set aside from the tax books and certificates was a cramped library. He had been told that it was tiny compared to others but to Konta it represented a hundred different worlds. Being so frail as he was meant that he had never been able to experience life like the other children he had grown up with. He couldn’t play and he couldn’t work. Hours of boredom were all that had awaited him each day until he was taught to read.
Most of the farmers and labourers couldn’t read at all. They’d never needed to. Konta’s father knew enough for basic written instructions but even they were a struggle. It had been Samil who had taken the time to show him. Of course, Samil had learnt it from a travelling poet to impress women, but he never could have imagined the impact on Konta’s life it would have.
Like pebbles down a mountain, the words had tumbled through Kanta’s mind, growing larger and gaining speed with each passing day. His tiny room had become battlefields, dark caves and magical forests, while his loneliness had been soothed by the voices of valiant knights and adventurers. He was a prisoner of his own body but his imagination was free to soar.
Blencca wasn’t exactly a town of literature. As Konta stepped into the library he found it devoid of life other than the young librarian, Daisy. She was busy drawing. The area around her desk was filled with paper bearing her sketches. She noticed him as he began to shuffle across the room.
“Is your brother not with you today?” she asked. Konta shook his head and she frowned disappointedly. “Shame,” she muttered before casting Konta from her mind and resuming her picture.
Konta wandered around the shelves intently. Over the last few years he had read most of what the room had to offer. At first he had been picky, choosing books at random by their covers or titles. Then he had grown to be methodical, starting at one side of the room and working through each book in turn. Finding where he had left off last, he selected the next book.
It was a huge tome that he struggled to even lift. He staggered over to a table and dropped it with a thud. The librarian scowled at him. Konta offered her a nervous smile in response. He sat down and examined the book.
The Fundamentals of Weight and its effects on the World, By Cornellous Fillius. It looked like he wouldn’t be immersing himself in stories for a while. That was okay though. He had begun to find the dry texts on history and philosophy rather interesting so maybe this one would surprise him too.
He opened the book and dived straight into the text, instantly hitting a barrier of not understanding many of the words. After a few minutes he took a well worn dictionary and returned to his seat. The library fell silent other than the turning of pages and scribbling of pencil.
Konta paused, trying to visualise what the book was describing. He closed the book then stood it up. It was thick enough to stay on its edge without trouble. He then placed the dictionary flat on top of it, creating a T shape. It balanced there easily. Slowly he nudged the dictionary until it was off-centre. It stayed balanced for about an inch then tipped, crashing to the table.
He set up the books again, keeping the dictionary as off centre as possible while keeping it balanced. Placing a coin on the more overhanging edge, he grabbed another book and held it above the dictionary’s opposite end. He took a deep breath, counted to three, then dropped it. The book hit the dictionary and tipped it, launching the coin across the room.
An angry sound from the desk cut his celebration short. He quickly placed everything back in their rightful place and returned to his silent reading. Hours passed, broken up by the occasional taking of notes in near illegible handwriting. In that time only one other man had entered and he had kept away from Konta’s table.
A tap on his shoulder startled Konta. He looked up to see Samil stood beside his seat with a bag of honied nuts in his hand. He held it open for Konta to take some.
“Looks like you’ve been busy. Anything worth reading?”
Konta nodded as he gathered up his notes. “Yeah. It’s all about moving heavy objects easily. It made me think that maybe even someone as weak as I am could still make a big change.”
“I’ve no doubt you can, little brother. You’re a smart kid. And you’ve got me at your back too of course.” Samil took the book and moved towards the desk. “Come on then. We still have to see Dalaina safely to her parents’ house. It might take me, you and Pa to pry Jakks off her long enough to get her through the doorway.”
Daisy was stood playing with her hair as Samil approached. “Oh Samil, it is so good of you to come and see me.”
“Yup. I’m a walking saint,” he said with a hint of dryness in his voice. “You are looking particularly soporific today.”
Konta held back a laugh. Samil seemed to take joy in using words that he knew others didn’t understand. Being known as the local poet, most folk simply assumed he was waxing lyrically and took it as a compliment.
“You’re too kind. I heard that you would be coming into town today so I spent a little extra time getting ready this morning. I’m so glad you noticed.”
Samil smiled back at her. “Wonderful. Anyway, I’m afraid I still have a lot of work to do, start of the harvest season and all that, so you’ll have to excuse me. I’ll pop down again to return this book when Konta’s finished with it. I don’t expect that will be long.”
Daisy’s smile faltered. “Oh. Okay then. You farmers are always so busy. I understand. I’ll see you seen then.”
They left the hall and rejoined Tannar at the cart. As they walked, Konta shook his head.
“You really shouldn’t play with Daisy like that. It’s not very nice.”
Samil gave him a look of pure innocence. He shrugged. “How would you want me to act? Ignore her? I’m just being my usual charming self. I can’t help it if she’s drawn to me. She’s a nice enough girl for a merchant’s daughter but she has no work ethic or ambition. That’s alright for some but I prefer a little more fire, you know?”
“Not really,” Konta answered passively. “Fiery people tend to be loud and angry.”
“Fire is just passion. Directed at something, passion is a beautiful thing. If left wild it becomes destructive. It’s like ink. Tip it on the paper and you have a hard to clean mess. Use a quill and use a little at a time and you have words. Love can be just as destructive as hate while hate can be a great motivator. It’s all relative really.”
“You think? Surely love is good and hate is bad?”
“Of course it is,” interrupted Jakks from the other side of the cart. “Don’t listen to him, Konta. He’s a knockoff intellectual who likes to go against the grain. Treat everyone how you want to be treated and the world will be a better place. It’s as simple as that.”
Samil raised an eyebrow. “So if someone hurt Dalaina then you would treat them with love and compassion?”
Jakks froze for a moment. “That’s different.” Samil only smirked in response.
“I think that we are born to love,” added Dalaina in a dreamy voice. She stroked her stomach tenderly. “Humans need love. Mothers love their child so that it can grow under their protection. Then the child will grow to love another to continue the cycle.”
Konta felt that he knew enough about humans at this point to argue against her logic but he didn’t have the heart to. Dalaina had always been an idealist. It was what had drawn Jakks to her in the first place. As the daughter of a florist, she had been taught to see the beauty in everything. Sometimes after listening to her talk, Konta could almost believe she was right.
The cart slowed suddenly. Everyone’s attention was pulled back to the road. A man dressed in black robes was standing in the road with a bell in one hand and a sign in the other. He repeatedly lurched up to passers by, ringing his bell as he shouted in their faces. Most ignored him but a small crowd was gathering.
“The gods are angry! I hear their voices in my dreams. They warned me that their messengers are coming. Heed not the false miracles of the wizards for they are heretics. Men deserve not the power they traitorously wield.”
“Damn preachers,” Tannar said in a low, dangerous voice. “We should find another way.”
It was too late. The preacher seemed to lock eyes with Konta and barged forward. He rang his bell louder with every step until it was near deafening. Samil pulled Konta behind him and Tannar stepped down from the cart.
“Cursed one! Blighted by the gods in their divine wisdom. You dare mock us with your presence on the dawn of their coming?”
He jabbed a finger into Konta’s chest violently. Konta felt the finger bend his rib. Agony shot through him, causing him to double over.
“See how the mere touch of the righteous burns him? Witness his suffering before the glory of the gods!”
“Back away!” Samil shouted. He formed a shield with his father while Dalaina clung to Jakks.
“You have shielded him too long! His death was decreed yet you heeded not the orders of the gods. You too shall share in his fate.”
Samil drew a knife from his belt and held it at the ready, not quite threatening the older man but clearly visible to him.
“You would threaten one who speaks the words of the gods? Your sins sink deeper than I could have imagined.
“I’d threaten the gods in person if they were spouting such crap. Now slink back into whatever hole you crawled out of before I shove that bell up your arse.” Samil spoke calmly but his eyes blazed. Tannar had a hand on his own knife but had yet to draw it.
“We don’t want any trouble,” Tannar reasoned. “Let us pass by in peace or you’ll be the one who comes out worst.”
The preacher glared at them all, his eyes jittering between them with barely contained anger. To Konta’s tear-filled eyes, he looked like a man who was beyond reason and logic. Earthy considerations like fighting against three labourers armed with knives with nothing but a brass bell and a wooden sign were probably beyond him.
Konta watched him sway on the spot almost drunkenly, his lips curled into a snarl. After what felt like an uncomfortably long time, the preacher spat on the ground then stepped aside. Tannar quickly took the reins again and urged the horse forward. As they were passing, he stared Konta dead in the eyes.
“I don’t need to kill you. The gods are coming soon. They will judge you. Judge us all. Just you wait!”